A former BC Rodeo Association bareback rider paralyzed in a 2015 fall is getting back in the saddle once more.
Prince George resident Kevin Cunin, 30, broke his neck five years ago at the BCRA Bulkley Valley Rodeo in Smithers after an awkward fall from a horse during competition. He broke three vertebrae, five ribs and punctured a lung, and was left paralyzed from the chest down, spending almost five months in the hospital.
On Wednesday, Sept. 30, Cunin was on hand at the Williams Lake Stampede Grounds to give a demonstration to his fellow students in the Thompson Rivers University Applied Sustainable Ranching Program in Williams Lake.
Recently gifted a new, specially-tailored saddle that will allow him to make a return to rodeo and to compete in team roping during next year’s BCRA season, Cunin excitedly discussed how it works with his classmates in the program, while Wendy Meijdam, another student in the program, used Cunin’s saddle to ride it around the Stampede arena.
Cunin, who spent the first 12 years of his life in Quesnel and has close ties to the Cariboo, said he hopes to use his eduaction in the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program to clear some land on an acreage he owns to create an energy- and cost-efficient cattle operation in Prince George. He is currently in his final year of the program taking classes remotely from Prince George.
“After my wreck and getting out of the hospital I moved back with my partner at the time with her parents out in Vanderhoof,” Cunin said. “They had some cattle and I got into learning about ranching and cattle, because I didn’t grow up around it. That’s what got me interested in the program. I needed to learn some basics with some more in-depth knowledge to see how I could make an operation work for me so I could still ranch and rodeo with the skills, as well as the restrictions, I have.”
Currently working full time in the forest industry, Cunin has always kept his rodeo family close. He’s currently a director with the Prince George Rodeo Club.
“Pretty soon after I started making some calls about getting a saddle made for me to different saddle makers,” he said.
“I got word of this guy out of Texas — he’s another paralyzed cowboy — who was hurt about 25 years ago named Randy Bird out of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). He can rope, so I figured he would be the right place to go to.”
Missing the sport, Cunin soon started hanging around back at the rodeo arena helping out during roping events.
“They built me a stand, got me up, loaded me up and all winter I’d be roping a dummy doing that, so that was pretty cool,” he said, noting this past July he lined up the purchase of a horse in Westlock, Alta.
“I hopped on him, started roping some steers, bought him and got him back to PG a couple weeks later and I’ve been doing a bunch of work to get ready.”
Cunin has continued to ride horses since his injury, noting his first time back on a horse was in 2018 with the owners at Pen-Y-Bryn Ranch in Quesnel, Paul and Terry Nicholson.
“They were absolutely phenomenal to work with,” he said.
“They do a lot of horse work with vets with PTSD and they’re really cool. It was my first time back on a horse and the three-year anniversary of when I got hurt, and it was so good. It wasn’t scary, and it was really good to get back and go out and do some stuff. But it was also extremely frustrating because, with no special saddle, I could kind of walk around and that was about it. I wanted to go loping, and that’s when I kind of realized I’d need the appropriate saddle to do it.”
His new saddle, which costs roughly four times the amount of a regular saddle, was purchased with the help of the Smithers Rodeo Club, Intercoast Construction Ltd., the Quesnel Rodeo Club and Nomad Welding, along with hep from the Interlakes Rodeo Club and Clint Ellis.
The saddle has a tall, large back to help stabilize Cunin’s core, with a strap that comes across his stomach and holds him in.
“It’s awesome, and I’m so looking forward to be back rodeoing, and competing,” he said. “I played sports like lacrosse and hockey and you get really awesome people involved in sports and the sporting community but rodeo is just a step ahead. Genuinely, really good people.”
He thanked the organizations, businesses and individuals who helped him purchase the saddle, and also added he’s forever grateful for the support he received following his injury and during his recovery.
“The rodeo community was there: I’d be in the hospital laying in bed, and life sucked at that point pretty bad, but I’d open up my phone and look on Facebook and I’d see messages from people I knew, and people I didn’t even know from all over the place — guys who’d been in rodeo wrecks down in the U.S. — even Davey Shields made a special trip from Alberta to come in and chat, so just really cool support from all over.”
Due to his physical restrictions, Cunin will be a heeler during BCRA events.
“I’ve got eight vertebrae that are bolted together in my back, and can’t really be a header because I can’t really turn my back, so being a heeler was the solution. I can make a nice shot and look like the hero,” he joked.
“I hope we have a BCRA season next year and, if they do, I’m coming into Williams Lake [Indoor Rodeo] to start the season off with a big win.”
As for his career decision to eventually start a cattle ranch after graduation, Cunin said he’s fully immersed in the Western lifestyle. He said TRU’s Applied Sustainable Ranching Program has continued to further his interest in agriculture, and noted it has been “absolutely awesome.”
“Rodeo, and the roping cattle industry: everyone kind of knows each other and they’re all willing to help each other out,” he said. “That’s what I like. It really is a big community and a guy’s word still means something.”